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Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks Need to Break Up

The Knicks’ best course of action is breaking up with Carmelo Anthony and focusing on the future, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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A few years ago, prior to his celebrated arrival, the city, the team, the owner and the fans all coveted the player.

The feeling was most certainly mutual. The player openly reciprocated their affection.

They wanted to unite, and were determined to find a way to make it happen.

The love affair actually began nearly three decades earlier. The player was born in Brooklyn and spent his adolescent years there. That’s where he first fell in love with the city’s game.

The player eventually moved away, spending his formative years in West Baltimore. As the player matured, his game developed. His name gained prominence, and his native city and the fans back home took notice. It seemed destined that they would someone day reunite.

By the winter of 2011, they both were unwilling to wait any longer. The time had come.

However, more than 2,000 miles separated them. The player lived and worked on the opposite side of the county, in Denver, Colorado. But that was simply a speed bump in the way of their reunion. Nothing was going to keep them apart – not geographical distance, a salary cap, future draft picks or a pending lockout.

On February 22, 2011, a trade was consummated. The city was ecstatic. The owner was overjoyed. The fans sang and danced, and cheered his homecoming.

The honeymoon period was wonderful. The player was treated like prince. Interest in the team increased immediately, and exponentially. Jersey sales skyrocketed. During the 2012-13 campaign, the team reached heights it hadn’t experienced in decades. They captured the Atlantic Division crown and won more than 50 games for the first time in since 1997. The player emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. The team finally advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The future seemed so bright. This was how both sides had dreamt it would be all those years ago.

But then, last season, the train slowly began to tumble off the tracks, eventually derailing on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. As the relationship screeched towards its nadir, discord and drama returned to the team. Losses piled up. Frustration grew. Both the player and team said all the right things in public, but the future of the marriage was now in doubt.

It is still fairly obvious that both parties still care a great deal for each other. In an ideal world (one with salary caps and luxury taxes), they’d stay together, happily ever after. They would jointly fight for a fairy tale ending, hoping to experience more signing, celebrating and eventually maybe even a parade.

But today’s NBA, and its strict salary structure, has no room for such sentimentality. And because of that harsh reality, the player and the team/city/fans may need to break up now, if they expect to find happiness and success in the future.

***

As we know, Carmelo Anthony has already opted out of his current contract with the New York Knicks. Beginning July 1, Anthony can meet with other teams as he attempts to determine where he will spend the remaining prime years of his career. It will be a difficult decision for Anthony. There are plenty of ‘pros and cons’ for staying in New York. However, just as importantly, there is also a case to be made for and against the Knicks offering Anthony major money to re-sign.

Let’s start with the facts: Anthony is one of the NBA’s better players. Despite the Knicks’ terribly disappointing 2013-14 season, Anthony did all he could to lift New York out of the doldrums. The all-around, individual statistics ‘Melo posted were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

Nonetheless, one number that can’t be ignored is “37.” That’s the total number of wins the Knicks tallied last season. And “zero” is the number of postseason games they participated in. Somehow, New York managed to miss the playoffs despite playing in an embarrassingly weak Eastern Conference.

Phil Jackson has inherited the Knicks just as they are approaching a major, franchise-changing fork in the road. Within the next couple of weeks, Anthony’s future will be determined. And that decision will have an immediate and enormous impact on the short- and long-term future of the Knickerbockers organization.

If Melo re-ups with New York, Jackson and company will surely make a full effort to surround Anthony with a bevy of complementary pieces, most likely veterans, that give the Knicks the best opportunity to win right away. The plan would be to fully maximize the small window of opportunity encompassing Anthony’s prime.

Conversely, if Carmelo signs somewhere else, the Knicks would likely look to ride out a rough 2014-15 season, keeping their eyes on the prize: The summer of 2015. New York owns their first-round pick in 2015, which would likely be a lottery pick if Anthony was not on the team. More importantly, New York will have an enormous amount of cap space to spend on free agents next summer, when some prominent players will be available on the open market. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Roy Hibbert and DeAndre Jordan among others may be up for grabs as unrestricted free agents in 2015. (And Kevin Durant is due to hit free agency in 2016.)

Let’s approach this dilemma from a different angle. The goal of the Knicks should be winning an NBA championship, correct?

Although it seems counter-intuitive, if the Knicks’ ultimate ambition is to win a title, then refusing to re-sign their best player to a max contract may be the most reasonable route towards that ultimate destination.

It would surely set the team back in the short-term; there is absolutely no denying that. Keeping Carmelo would probably ensure the Knicks remaining competitive next season and for a few seasons thereafter.

However, there is an old cliché in the NBA that stipulates that in order for a team to reach heaven, they have to go through hell.

Would re-signing ‘Melo to a max deal simply prolong the Knicks’ period in purgatory? Would giving Anthony max money increase the likelihood of New York consistently finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, while simultaneously decreasing their chances of evolving into an elite, championship-level team?

Despite undeniable individual greatness throughout the entirety of his career, Anthony hasn’t found much team success in the postseason. Carmelo completed his 11th NBA season last April, and he has only won a total of three playoff series during that entire tenure. His team has won only 23 of the 66 playoff games he has competed in (a 34.8 winning percentage). That’s one the worst individual postseason records in NBA history among players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff games.

Obviously, all of those losses can’t be pinned directly on Anthony, but they are an undeniable part of the picture, and these facts have to be taken into account when determining Anthony’s ultimate worth. If we highlight the positives (scoring titles, All-NBA Team nominations, etc.) and give him credit for carrying teams into the playoffs, we have to hold his feet to the fire for failing to consistently deliver on the NBA’s biggest stage.

Anthony recently celebrated his 30th birthday. How many players perform far better in the 30s than they did in their 20s? If Anthony hasn’t been good enough to be the best player on championship team yet, does it make sense to believe he’ll start doing it now?

Anthony is talented enough to be a key contributor on a title team; however, it’s not wise for Jackson to assume a 31-year-old Anthony can be the highest-paid, best player on championship squad.

And make no mistake, if he signs for the max, he’ll be the team’s highest paid player by a wide margin. Examining exactly how much ‘Melo can be paid is a bit sobering for even the most dedicated Anthony supporters. If New York gives Carmelo the maximum allowable raises, here’s what Anthony’s annual salary would look like:

2014-15 season: $22.457 million
2015-16 season: $24.141 million
2016-17 season: $25.825 million
2017-18 season: $27.509 million
2018-19 season: $29.193 million

By the fifth and final season of a potential new max contract (after he had already celebrated his 34th birthday), Anthony would make over $29 million.

How effective and efficient will Anthony be at 33 years old? What about 34 years old?

Anthony entered the league as a teenager. He now has 11 full seasons worth of wear-and-tear on body. In addition, last year was exceedingly taxing. Former head coach Mike Woodson, desperate to save his job, rode Anthony relentlessly. Carmelo led the NBA in minutes played, averaging nearly 39 minutes a night. And it’s not solely the sheer volume of minutes that’s distressing; the Knicks leaned heavily on Anthony whenever he was on the floor. He’s always been the focal point of New York’s offensive attack, and in recent seasons he’s also been forced to guard bigger and stronger power forwards on a nightly basis.

How will Anthony’s aging body respond? This is a question Jackson has to ask himself.

Consider this: Last season Anthony became just the second player, age 29 or older, since 2010 to log over 3,000 minutes in one season. The only other player to have matched that feat is Kobe Bryant, who played over 3,000 minutes in 2012-13. (As we know, Bryant tore his Achilles in April of 2013 and managed to play a total of just six games in 2013-14 before a knee injury ended his season).

Nonetheless, let’s take an optimistic approach and a assume Anthony does not slow down and maintains his elite level of production. It’s probably safe to assume the Knicks will bounce back into the playoffs next season. Trading away Tyson Chandler cost them their best defensive player, but they got back a massive upgrade at the point guard position in Jose Calderon, which was a necessity. And based on the talent level on the Knicks’ current roster, they should certainly win more than 37 games. But what is their ultimate upside. Even if they snag a very good player with their mid-level exception (rumors of Pau Gasol taking a huge discount have been floated recently), how good could this Knicks team be? What is the best-case scenario?

With LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade opting out of their contracts this past weekend, it appears Miami is re-tooling for another few years of Eastern Conference dominance. Not to mention the bevy of stacked teams in the West. Would even the biggest Knick fan argue that the 2014-15 Knicks will be a serious contender for the crown?

When taking the fiscal reality of today’s NBA and the big picture into account, the Knicks’ best course of action is swallowing some unpleasant medicine, tanking in 2014-15 and focusing on the future.

Anthony previously declared he would be willing to take less than the max to stay with the Knicks, and Jackson has wisely alluded to Anthony’s pronouncement. But exactly how much money is ‘Melo willing to leave on the table? The only significant advantage New York has over Anthony’s other’s suitors (Chicago, Houston, etc.) is their ability to pay him $33 million more. The other teams have far better supporting casts, better players with proven playoff experience. In addition, the Knicks’ rebuilding effort would receive a major boost if both the Bulls and Rockets were dueling for Anthony’s services, and offering competing sign-and-trade packages in hopes of sealing a deal with Carmelo.

Even if Anthony gives the Knicks a moderate discount, the savings likely won’t be enough to offset the potential pitfalls.

The most prudent plan would likely be sacrificing short-term success to reap long-term rewards.

If Anthony is not taking up $22+ million, New York could be looking at upwards of $40 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree next summer. Of course, they won’t have to spend it all in one place (or on one player). Smart organizations understand the true value of cap space is that it presents opportunities to trade for high-priced players, as well as sign top free-agents outright.

And, as has been noted before in this space, this is where the presence of Jackson makes things that much more interesting. Prior to Jackson’s arrival, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable. However, with Jackson calling the shots (as opposed to owner Jim Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency are greatly decreased. NYC is a far more desirable location for prospective players now that Jackson is the new face of the franchise.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they get.

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

If the free agent class of 2015 is star-studded, and the Knicks had more cap space than any team in the NBA, what kind of team could Jackson put together? Furthermore, Jackson is already off to fine start, reeling in a 2013 first round pick with enticing upside (Shane Larkin) and receiving the good fortune having another player with first-round talent (Cleanthony Early) fall into his lap with the 34th overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Clearing and preserving cap space by letting Anthony walk is an inherently risky proposition, but if you have a competent front office in place (not a maverick owner masquerading as a GM), the risk is minimized.

Even if Anthony signed for “only” $115 million (roughly $15 million less the max), would that be the most efficient allocation of New York’s funds? For argument’s sake, which would be the better investment: The possibility of committing to pay a player such as Kevin Love $18 million per season in his mid-20s or paying Anthony $23 million at age 32?

Or what about a spending the money earmarked for Anthony on some combination of Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and Danny Green?

Many max contracts are celebrated on signing day, but then viewed with remorseful regret a few years down the road.

These are the issues Jackson has surely been mulling over since moving to New York. It will be fascinating to watch how Anthony and the Knicks interact over the next 10 days. The final chapters have yet to be written. How will this story end? Will this be their last dance?

***

The player and the team/city/fans have had a fun, enjoyable run. Like any relationship, there were highs and lows, but it was ultimately satisfying and beneficial for both parties. Studies show that financial troubles, and the resulting disputes, are one of the primary causes of divorces in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s never easy to say goodbye.

Still, sometimes it’s best to realize and acknowledge that a relationship has run its course. It’s not the fairy tale ending either side was hoping for, but it’s time for the player and the team to go their separate ways.

 

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity

The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.

Benny Nadeau

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With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.

Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.

Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.

With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.

Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.

Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.

Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.

An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.

Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.

As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.

When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.

If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.

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Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?

The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?

A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.

Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.

Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.

The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.

All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.

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Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt

Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.

Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)

After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.

Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.

Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.

Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.

Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.

******

Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.

“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”

Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.

“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”

“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”

A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.

Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.

Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.

Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.

The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.

Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.

Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:

Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent

Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent

Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent

Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent

Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.

And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.

Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.

“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”

******

Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.

That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.

Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.

“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”

Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.

Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.

The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.

Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.

“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.

“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”

With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.

“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.

And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.

They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.

“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”

The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.

“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”

How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.

Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.

A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?

******

A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.

He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.

“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”

It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.

He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.

All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.

“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”

With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.

Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.

More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.

Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.

They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.

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